I have been accused of being a chauvinist for the cause of Deadly Premonition—that my love for the game eclipses any ability to think critically about its flaws. I don't believe this is the case, and I'm happy to admit it that the game is loaded with flaws. Real, actual, mistakes that haven't been misinterpreted by the critical press, or are actually just clever commentaries on the state of video game design. While it's rare to see me suggesting that a game needed better graphics, I'd be a fool were I to deny the fact that York Morgan would have been easier to empathize with as a character if the sight of him smiling didn't fill the human heart with revulsion:
The biggest flaw in the game, as I've stated before, was the terrible, terrible, overrepresented combat. SWERY 65, the game's director has been open about the fact that the combat was awkwardly shoe-horned into an adventure game in an attempt to make it more marketable, so I'm not going to spend an article criticizing a financial decision—instead, I'd like to take a moment to consider the game that Deadly Premonition would have been had this bad advice never been offered or accepted.
We've already had a glimpse of York's skills as a borderline-psychic profiler in the extremely spoilery "deadly premonition" that capped the game's first SHOW sequence. After leaving the hospital with George and Emily, York heads to the site where Anna's body was discovered, and engages in some good old-fashioned investigation:
Before getting into the more metaphysical realm of profiling:
It's in this sequence that we get a window to what the SHOW sequences could have been, without all the tedious gunplay. Whether the player interprets the SHOW as an alternate spiritual world or just a figment of York's imagination (or, in my own interpretation, a combination of the two), it's clear that he's not actually physically traveling to another location, and the fights that occur there are not literally occurring.
As this sequence plainly demonstrates, York seeing a darker, altered version of the area he's investigation works perfectly well in an adventure context. There's any number of ways to read the change, from the crime being committed there opening a psychic window to a "dark world" to the change simply being a function of York's feelings about the crime and the person responsible for it. If only the rest of the game's SHOW sequences were this restrained.
There's nothing particularly wrong with the art design in the sawmill location. It's creepy, dilapidated, atmospheric—just the kind of place that players would love to slowly walk around, jumping at each slight creak or wayward shadow. Sadly, like the old adage about golf, the atmosphere is spoiled by the fact that enemies keep jumping out of the walls, requiring tending like an unruly garden.
Deadly Premonition isn't the only game franchise to suffer from this design mistake, of course. Let's look for a moment at the franchise that most obviously inspired the SHOW scenes, Silent Hill. A series known for its unparalleled immersion and scare factor, ask any fan their favorite parts of the games and you'll likely hear references to the art, the creature design, the sense of dread that permeates every moment spent in that town.
The combat will likely go unmentioned.
Remember Pyramid Head, the series' most iconic villain? Does he still give you chills years later because the boss fight with him was so memorable, or because the player was forced to, for the purposes of self-preservation, spend the entire game running away from him?
I'm not going to embark on a tirade about horror games (like Siren) opposed to survival horror games (like Resident Evil) and the relative merits of each genre, except to say that it's important to understand what kind of game you're making. Survival horror games can't be scary—they can be thrilling, but not horrific. Empowerment and fear can't co-exist. Which is why Half-Life stops being scary once Gordon finds his first gun, and starts being thrilling.
Deadly Premonition wants to be a horror game—speaking in Capcom terms, the target is clearly closer to Clock Tower than Resident Evil. Just look at York's encounters with the Raincoat Killer:
You can debate whether this sequence is effectively designed (not that you have to—it isn't), but the intent is clear. This isn't like Nemesis' eight appearances in Resident Evil 3, each one allowing a victory over the game's main threat, so that by the end his final annihilation is a fait accomplit, with Nemmy being remembered more for his tenacity than his effectiveness at killing anything. The developers want the player to be terrified of RK—to either hold their breath while hiding or sprint in the opposite direction whenever he appears. This is fundamentally at odds with the twenty minutes they just spent blowing holes in the heads of cannon-fodder zombies.
Again, the combat fails not because it's ineptly executed (although that's obviously true), but because it's fundamentally irreconcilable with the rest of the game. Even if the game had offered tight, tuned, bad-ass Resident Evil 4-style gunplay, it still would have stood out like a sore thumb because that kind of combat offers an experience to the player diametrically opposed to what the game is trying to accomplish.
If there's one thing I'd like to see from SWERY 65 and the Deadly Premonition team in the future it's a version of the game that excises the combat entirely, and just lets players be terrified by a world where guns can't be used to solve their problems. Also, while they're tweaking things, maybe make York's smile just a little less creepy.
But until that special edition is available, perhaps you can console yourself by purchasing the Deadly Premonition that's under twenty dollars right now? Who knows, if enough copies are sold the publishers might interpret it as a call for a polished director's cut!
Next time, I offer a final nail in the coffin of the combat system!